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Licensed to fill their pockets: why agents provoke extreme reactions

Rachel Anderson has suffered because of operators who are not officially sanctioned
  • @stevetongue

Inviting sympathy for football agents might be compared to a request to pity those poor bankers, or love your local traffic warden. Yet a majority of people who deal with them will admit that, as in most trades, there are good ones, bad ones and something in between.

Some law-breakers too, alas; the current edition of World Soccer magazine carries a well-researched article claiming that criminals target overseas players by pretending to be licensed agents, then demand money for non-existent trials with clubs in Britain and elsewhere, even supplying forged letters supposedly signed by the manager.

Rachel Anderson, a board member of the eight-year-old Association of Football Agents, was hardly surprised by the story since she herself is inundated with similar letters. "They say they've arranged a trial with a club and if you want your players involved there's an administration fee of any-thing from $100 [£66] to ¤1,000 [£844]," she says. Neither the money nor the agent are ever heard of again.

The Football Association website has a little note pleading: "If you have any doubts about anyone purporting to be a Football Agent please do not hesitate to contact the Financial Regulation Team for clarification." All agents are supposed to be licensed, no longer with Fifa but with their national football association, and the FA list 582 of them operating in England.

What Anderson would like to know from the governing body is what they are doing about the unlicensed ones, the bane of her profession. Clubs are not supposed to deal with them, but it is rare for any transgressions to be punished. When Celtic used an unlicensed agent in signing Alan Stubbs a few years ago they were fined £41,000 (at that time by Fifa), reduced to £22,000 because they had "acted in good faith".

"All the regulations are there, the problem is they don't police them well enough," she says. "If you're not registered, then the deal should be void. Celtic were fined but the deal still went ahead. They can ban a club from the transfer market for 12 months – imagine if a big club had to do that. I'm hoping that under [the new FA chairman] Greg Dyke things will change.

"They're going to have to do something, because the taxman's losing millions and the Government have insisted they put their house in order or face regulation."

She credits the FA for acting as a clearing house for transfers and for ending third-party ownership, but her frustration with them grew out of a case involving the Nigerian international Blessing Kaku, whom she had worked with for some time, eventually securing him a trial at Sam Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers.

"That was my first encounter with the ineffectual system," she says. "He was outstanding in the trial match so they quickly took him off before anyone else spotted him. Then he suddenly disappeared and wasn't answering his phone. I had someone checking hotels up there who found him, and was told Bolton would sign him but only if he went through another agent.

"It was a hijack, a con, after I'd spent a year nursing him through what he had to do and speaking to clubs here and in Europe. The FA's response was that it was a civil matter between myself and the player, which is absolute nonsense, as we're governed by the FA and because you're a licensed agent you're not allowed to sue in the courts."

That was one of 17 transfers that the Quest inquiry overseen by Lord Stevens had concerns about and refused to sign off. "I gave evidence to the inquiry," Anderson says. "They shook a few people up for about five minutes. And people not licensed just got a bit cleverer. You can apparently set up a company with just one share and don't have to announce who owns the share, so they were doing that."

She cites the case of one agent whose licence was revoked by the FA who has simply registered with their Scottish counterparts instead and carried on as before. Meanwhile Fifa, having estimated that 70 per cent of international transfers were at one time being carried out by unlicensed agents, are planning to introduce a Global Player Exchange, to which clubs will subscribe, giving them access to information about available players and the opportunity to deal without agents.

Some clubs, however, prefer to have a middle-man – or woman – making discreet enquiries on their behalf without pushing the price up. Having once had 50 players under her wing – West Ham's Julian Dicks was the very first, when she was working in public relations – Anderson has moved on without any great regrets to representing clubs. "I find that a little less nannying than looking after an individual player. I feel I've done my time with that. It's 24/7 and never-ending. You have to love them all the same, and even if you phone them all once a week, let alone meeting them or watching them play, that's taking up quite a lot of time.

"It's a generalisation, but my experience is that foreign players are more money-orientated. At first they're just desperate to play in England and say, 'I only need enough to live on'. That lasts about a week, until they realise other people are on twice as much. But I always say to the clubs that if they give someone a fair deal they won't be knocking on the door every five minutes causing problems."

Her greatest claim to fame, however, as a woman in what is still seen as a man's world, is having brought about a change in the law in 1998 after being banned from the Professional Footballers' Association dinner, at which Dicks wanted her to be his guest. Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, wrote suggesting she should go for a court case, which she won at the risk of serious financial damage, and the Sex Discrimination Act was amended with all-party support.